As has been recently demonstrated in Ukraine, you can’t teach experience. It’s something that requires actually doing the deed or using training methods that accurately portray what you need experience in handling. This was evident during the 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. The nine new Ukrainian armored brigades involved were equipped with 230 tanks and 1,550 other armored vehicles. Some of the new tanks and IFVs were Western models but most were the Russian type tanks and IFVs (Infantry fighting vehicles) Ukraine had many of and had long used. There was also additional artillery ammunition, HIMARS missiles and long range Scalp guided bombs as well as short range anti-aircraft missiles. There were also specialized armored engineer vehicles for clearing paths through minefields. There were UAVs (Unmanned Aerial vehicles) for reconnaissance, surveillance and spotting targets for artillery, missiles or longer range weapons. But those nine new brigades weren’t very effective.
Back in 1982 the U.S. Army came up with a solution to the problem the Ukrainians encountered. The Americans created a large National Training Center (NTC) where army combat brigades could confront a realistic Russian opponent. The NTC is a 147,000-hectare facility in the Mojave Desert at Ft Irwin, California. There the United States Army revolutionized the training of ground combat troops during the 1980s with the development of MILES laser-tag equipment for infantry and armored vehicles and the use of MILES in a large, wired to record all activities, combat training area. Other countries soon realized the importance of these innovations, and a few built their own NTC clones. NTC-type training centers are usually built to enable a combat brigade to go through several weeks of very realistic combat exercises.
NTC training was not only very close to the experience troops encountered in combat, but it also stressed commanders the same way actual combat does. This enables commanders to test themselves and their subordinate commanders before they get into a real fight. You can also use NTC facilities to experiment with new tactics in addition to keeping troops well trained in whatever the current tactics are. This includes counter-terror operations as well as the kind of novel combat tactics that might be encountered in the future.
Ukrainian troops had received several weeks of additional training before joining in their 2023 offensive. What was missing was enough additional training for the new brigades, as brigades, to learn how to operate effectively in a combined arms operation involving so many different types of equipment and capabilities. A few weeks of combined arms training for the brigades would have made a big difference by developing skills needed to integrate and operate all the new equipment effectively. That lack of training was evident after the offensive began and was slowed down by Russian defenders who were outnumbered and not as lavishly equipped. Defending does not require as much training or additional weapons to succeed.
While the NTC is primarily for peacetime training, it can be used in wartime if there is time to send the brigades to an NTC for three weeks of additional training. During the 2003-2011 Iraq War, several national guard brigades, which were composed of reservists, were sent to the NTC before going to Iraq. NTC training was modified for Iraq War conditions and the troops who trained there found the training useful because many things later encountered in Iraq, they had already experienced at the NTC.
Ukrainian military leaders have long been aware of the NTC concept, which has been adapted by many nations since the 1980s. Ukraine does not have one and none of its brigades have actually used one. Nevertheless, Ukraine supplies the United States and other NATO nations with advice on how to modify their current NTC training to represent the current state of the Russian forces. The NATO countries report back to Ukraine any NTC revelations that might help the Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine has long been aware of how important NTC-type training is. For example, in 2014 Ukraine persuaded a German firm to cancel a signed $134 million contract to build a NTC-like military training facility for Russia. This cancellation was the result of the growing list of economic sanctions on Russia as a result of the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Many Russians feared the Ukrainian land-grab would cause major economic damage, but in the case of this German contract, the loss was meant to hinder Russian efforts to modernize and upgrade their armed forces. This training center contract was to enable Russia to join the United States, Germany, China, Israel, and many other major military powers who are benefitting from the use of instrumented combat training centers. Russia had hired Rheinmetall, a German firm that built such a training range in 2008 for Germany, to build a very similar training center in Russia.
Since 2003 Israel has been using and expanding its own NTC. This is a 39,000 hectare TTC Tactical Training Center at Ze'elim in the Negev desert. In addition to wide-open areas for the training of armor, infantry, and artillery units, there are several villages and urban areas wired for training troops to fight in close quarters. Israel has now developed a portable version of this technology and many other innovations as well.
China opened its own version of an NTC in 2010. The Chinese NTC was a big deal. It meant the Chinese were really serious about training their ground combat troops to the highest standards. This kind of training is serious business, in part because it's expensive to use an NTC. Not just the fuel and ammo the troops will use, but the expense of a staff to run the NTC and perform as the OPFOR opposing force. American intelligence officers identify and track which units go through the Chinese NTC and mark them as likely to be much more effective in combat.
Ft Irwin itself has been expanded and since the 1980s the United States has established many similar training centers, all using lots of electronics to assist the trainees in having a realistic experience while also enabling them to see their mistakes and learn from them. Israeli and American manufacturers have individually, or through collaboration, developed new features for NTC-type facilities. These include portable equipment that can allow any area to be wired to provide the same effect by constant monitoring and recording of everything everyone does. There are also Vehicle Player Units (VPUs) that make Hummers appear as armored vehicles, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, or artillery as needed for the monitoring system. This saves a lot of money by not using the real thing. There is also a system that releases different colored smoke when a vehicle is hit, indicating if it is damaged or destroyed. Helicopters and warplanes, for example, were eventually modified so they could operate as part of NTC exercises.
One of the critical aspects of this type of training is the playback. Instructors can edit the electronic record of who did what when and show commanders and troops where they made mistakes. This feedback made the troops and their commanders more effective in future combat operations. There will be fewer surprises.
Blocked from buying an NTC from Germany, Russia considered turning to China, which has built modern military training centers. These were not as effective as the one Germany was offering Russia but were probably good enough. Russia never did get a training center able to train brigade-size units in a realistic and effective fashion. Russia subsequently built smaller, more tactical training centers using some of the concepts found effective in NTCs. This did not make up for the absence of a proper NTC and that proved to be the case when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.